Even their bodies look superior; they are leaner, and more cut, their biceps and triceps pop, and their calves bulge. Their passes are crisper, their screens are bigger, and their pace is more intense. They are quicker to every loose ball. There is not a single idle moment by any player, on any part of the floor, never a lazy foot or a low hand. They never, ever take a play off and they never get tired. Anyone who wants to beat them needs to start by planting a spy in their training room.
This was a game for all of about six minutes. Louisville’s Sara Hammond opened the scoring by hitting a three-pointer and turning to smartly salute her coach, Jeff Walz. But that was the last moment of glory for the Cinderella team that had knocked off top-ranked Baylor, Tennessee and Cal. The Huskies’ Caroline Doty threw a flagrant elbow to the face of Louisville guard Bria Smith that left her writhing on the floor, and that started the pasting. The Huskies went on an 18-0 run until, with two minutes still to go in the first half, they had a 19-point lead.
“We’re still one step away,” Walz conceded afterward.
The rest of the country has some work to do to equal U-Conn.’s ability to show up big in Final Fours. No one is anywhere near them in that category; the Huskies have never lost an NCAA title game. Not even Notre Dame, which defeated the Huskies three times this season, nor Baylor, which also handed them a loss. Both proved upset prone under pressure. U-Conn. didn’t.
Their success is based on the ability to take the best recruits in the country and make them as hard-working as they are gifted.
“I expect to be in contention every year,” Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma said. “Everybody has injuries and everybody has bad luck, but ever since 1995 with vey few exceptions we were number one in the country. I don’t know anyone who’s done that.”
Walz tells the following story about Auriemma. One day, Walz asked if he could observe a U-Conn. practice. Auriemma agreed — and then took a seat next to Walz and watched his own players work out. Out on the floor, former Huskies Renee Montgomery and Tina Charles ran the practice.
Auriemma had his team so programmed, Walz said, “He didn’t have to tell them to go hard. The upperclassmen were getting on the freshmen, and were getting on the sophomores. If you weren’t going hard, he didn’t have to say anything because their teammates are saying it. And that’s when you know you’ve got yourself a great program and leaders. Because as a coach, when you just have to coach and you’re not trying to encourage your kids, ‘Go hard, go hard, go hard,’ you know it’s going to be a good thing.”
No one exemplifies U-Conn.’s ability to transform a talent into a grinding worker more than young Breanna Stewart, a 6-foot-4 baby eagle of a player Auriemma has predicted will be the game’s next great.
The freshman they call ‘Stewie” scored 23 points Tuesday and was named most outstanding player of the Final Four.
Yet she had a traumatic initial adjustment to the program’s standards. A chart of her season looks like the stock market, rising and falling. She scored 20 points or more in three of her first four games — and then the bottom fell out. She was unaccustomed to the general toughness of the workouts, and the demands of Auriemma and his staff. “They always seem to be busting my chops,” she said. At midseason, she lost her confidence and went into a significant slump.
She had trouble meeting her teammates’ pace and intensity, and with her gangly build, she got pushed around by the higher-ranked teams. She went scoreless against Baylor and put up just five against Notre Dame. Her body language turned mopey, and she withdrew.
“You’re getting into your own head, and it just becomes an ongoing cycle,” she said.
Said Auriemma: “When she wasn’t playing well it got into her pretty severely and she let it affect her. She wasn’t strong enough mentally and strong enough emotionally to just kind of put it aside.”
When the notoriously blunt and hard-mouthed Auriemma went at her in the locker room, she would lift her large brown bird eyes to the ceiling, trying to control her tears. It got to the point where, “If he said almost anything to her, she would look up and the eyes would fill, and you’d see the tears,” said Auriemma’s longtime assistant Chris Dailey.
That’s when Dailey stepped in. Dailey, who is every inch the teacher Auriemma is, had watched Stewart founder but waited to intervene, thinking it would be better if Stewart approached her for help than the other way around.But Dailey said it was a miscalculation. “I apologized to her,” Dailey says. “She’s 18. Sometimes they need to be shown. It took us awhile to figure it out.”
Dailey made Stewart her personal project: Every day the freshman reported early to the gym and the assistant coach led her through a series of drills, working on her timing and teaching her how to pick up the pace.
Stewart also gradually added a little bit of definition to her thin frame — though not much. “She insists she’s strong,” Dailey says, rolling her eyes. One afternoon Stewart went to Auriemma’s office for a meeting wearing a sleeveless jersey. He said dryly, “Put a shirt on and cover up those muscles.”
All of the work finally showed on the court. Starting with the Big East tournament, Stewart became a consistent factor and her play took off — culminating in a masterful performance against Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals on Sunday night, when she had a career-high 29 points and four blocked shots to help her team advance.
“There was a renewed almost kind of ‘I’m not going to settle for this anymore, I’m not going to allow myself to feel like this anymore,’ ” Auriemma said. “Then once she started playing well, it just snowballed. And right now she just has a tremendous amount of confidence in herself, as she should.”
What’s more, her coaches say, she is just getting started. “It’s just a glimpse,” Dailey said. If U-Conn.’s historical tendency to win championships in clusters is any indication, that’s bad news for the rest of the country. U-Conn. is tied with Tennessee for eight national championships, the most in the annals of the women’s game — a record that seems sure to be surpassed in the coming years. You could say the Huskies stumbled into this title when Louisville upset the heavy favorite Baylor and 6-foot-8 player of the year Brittney Griner. But the fact is that records are set by the programs that put themselves in a winning position year after year, and pick up the championships that more uneven programs let slip away.
“Sometimes you stumble upon a championship, and sometimes the other team hands it to you,” Auriemma said. “But this team deserves it.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.